My painting Bridging the Gap focuses on what I consider the main contribution toward Allied victory over the German submarine threat during World War II, the Consolidated Liberators flown by Royal Air Force Coastal Command. Created for my friend Roy Conyers Nesbit’s book The Battle of the Atlantic, the painting shows a convoy in midocean, shepherded by a Coastal Command Liberator GR Mark V from No. 220 Squadron.
When war broke out in 1939, the German naval leaders soon realized that their best chance for success in the Atlantic would be undersea attack. Admiral Karl Dönitz developed the “wolf pack” strategy, in which groups of U-boats would hunt and attack Allied convoys at night. This approach soon took a heavy toll on Allied shipping—more than 1,000 ships in 1940 alone—and it became increasingly difficult to maintain essential supplies. The U-boats came close to starving Britain into submission.
Britain’s wartime convoy system had serious shortcomings. There were insufficient numbers of Royal Navy escort vessels, and only a few had the endurance to accompany slow-moving merchant ships across the North Atlantic. The remainder accompanied outbound convoys only to a point approximately 100 miles west of Ireland. There, they met and escorted inbound convoys until those vessels dispersed to steam unprotected to their final destinations.
Nor was RAF Coastal Command capable of providing an effective escort for the convoys. Coastal Command was the most neglected of the RAF’s three homebased components; priority in the belated rebuilding program had been given first to the offensive power of Bomber Command and second to the defensive capabilities of Fighter Command. The 16 squadrons of Coastal Command were equipped with about 195 frontline aircraft, including 135 Avro Ansons, with a action radius of about 250 miles. But the need to circle a slow-moving convoy and still conserve fuel for emergencies meant that the Ansons’ time on station was very limited. They had inadequate armament and limited bomb-carrying capability. Coastal Command also fielded nine Lockheed Hudsons and 15 obsolete Saro Londons, Vickers Vildebeests and Supermarine Stranraers. They had 12 of the new Short Sunderlands, which had an action radius of about 900 miles, but these were far too few to make a significant difference in the fight. There was no airborne radar. Moreover, if the British aircraft spotted a sub’s periscope, their bombloads were almost useless. Airborne depth-charges had not yet been produced; subhunters carried antisubmarine bombs that had been developed between the wars. The 100-pound version had little destructive power, and in any event the U-boat had usually vanished below the surface by the time the aircraft dropped its bombs. Machine gun bullets of .303-inch caliber could take out exposed enemy gunners but would not penetrate the U-boats’ hulls.
There were three home-based operational groups in Coastal Command: No. 15 covered the southwest approaches of the North Atlantic and the western part of the English Channel; No. 18 covered the northwestern approaches of the North Atlantic and the northern area of the North Sea; and No. 16 operated over the eastern area of the Channel and the southern area of the North Sea. The British had landed in Iceland in May 1940, partly to prevent the Germans from using the island in their U-boat campaign and partly to provide bases for the Royal Navy and Coastal Command. More Sunderlands were produced as time went on. The Ansons were replaced by Hudsons, and Bristol Beauforts replaced the Vildebeests. The Vickers Wellington was also used by Coastal Command to good effect. In addition, new and improved weapons emerged, the most significant being air-to-surface-vessel (ASV) radar, introduced in 1940. Another milestone came when British analysts broke the Enigma codes used by the Kriegsmarine.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy was becoming increasingly involved in securing the safety of vessels in the Western Atlantic. In October 1939, the United States established a Security Zone, covering the U.S. eastern seaboard and extending south toward Brazil. U.S. Navy warships patrolled those waters, where U-boats could not attack without the risk of drawing the United States into the war. In April 1941, the Security Zone was moved farther eastward. The Royal Canadian Navy became stronger, and the Lend-Lease Act in the United States authorized the transfer of ships and planes to augment the sparse British forces. Then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7. On December 11, Adolf Hitler, compelled to honor his alliance with Japan, declared war and the United States officially entered World War II in Europe.
Still, the limited range of aircraft operating from each side of the Atlantic left the middle unprotected, an area that became known as the Atlantic Gap. That gap was effectively bridged during 1943, when the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, with a range of around 2,850 miles, began to be employed on long-distance patrols. Britain’s Coastal Command began receiving the B-24D under the designation Liberator III. In addition to modifications to their defensive armament, some of the “Libs” were fitted with airfoil winglets low on the fuselage sides below the cockpit and a 5 million candlepower Leigh Light under the starboard wing. ASV radar was installed either in a distinctive chin fairing under the nose glazing or in a retractable radome installed in place of the Sperry ball turret on the Liberator GRV and later GRVI.
The tide then turned. Allied shipping losses dropped drastically, while U-boat losses rose to an unsustainable level. The Battle of the Atlantic had been won.
Bridging the Gap shows a convoy spread out in the vast expanse of the Atlantic, looking very exposed and vulnerable. But in the sky above the ships there is a guardian angel looking after them, a Liberator. The plane’s powerful Leigh Light is shown under the starboard wing and the ASV radar “dustbin” radome is shown lowered under the rear fuselage. I deliberately placed the sun behind the Liberator’s wing in order to emphasize the fact that the aircraft is acting as a protector to the convoy.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.